Fr. Booth’s “Words of Wisdom”

Practical Aspects of Celibacy

The reality of martyrdom impelled the Church to see the practical wisdom of priestly celibacy. Nevertheless, in the absence of active persecution the imitation of Christ and the application of His teachings are certainly enough of an incentive for the discipline of celibacy. It must be stressed again that priestly celibacy is only a discipline and not a doctrine of the Church, a discipline that has served the Church quite well. Yet many will object that some of the Apostles were married. Yes, Matthew 8:14-15 and First Corinthians 9:5 both indicate this. But it is entirely possible that the martyrdom of up to ten married Apostles (Sts John and Paul remained unmarried, perhaps others were as well) taught the early Church the value of a celibate priesthood. Given the thorough brutality of the Romans, it is quite likely that the Apostles’ wives and children were also targeted for torture and death.

Changing the focus to more recent times, some have suggested that allowing priests to marry would have prevented or greatly reduced the horrid abuse of children perpetrated by Catholic priests in the latter half of the 20th century. The argument suggests that a married man is much less likely to abuse children. This is not the case. Statistics show that fathers, stepfathers, and other close male relatives account for about 80% of child sexual abuse. In other words, marriage is not a cure for predatory or perverted behavior. In fact, the expectation that marriage would reduce child abuse makes no sense: why would a pedophile be satisfied with natural marital relations when he is unnaturally attracted to minors? Adult women are not the object of his appetite. Would we expect marriage to a woman to ‘cure’ a homosexual man of his unnatural attraction and immoral appetites? So how could we realistically expect a pedophile, especially a homosexual pedophile, to be deterred from abusing minors just because he is married to a woman?

There are other practical issues that would make a married priesthood impractical. First, we do have a married deaconate. We generally expect married deacons to have raised their kids to adulthood, which if applied to a married priesthood, would more or less mean delaying the ordination of married priests into their 50’s and 60’s. Thus, the duration of their ministries would be significantly shortened. We also wisely expect our married deacons to put their family obligations before their ministry. Thus, a married priest would be much less available than one who is celibate. The married protestant minister is often faced with the dilemma of choosing his flock or his family as his priority. This has increasingly caused problems in the family if the flock takes priority, and this is reflected in an above average divorce rate for protestant ministers in recent years. In any case, a married priesthood would likely result in less pastoral duration and availability than with the current celibate priesthood. Thus, we would need even more men, maybe twice as many, to answer the call to serve as married priests.

A married priesthood also poses a financial challenge relative to celibate priests. Priests in our diocese make about $25,000 a year, which is much less than what would be needed to support a family. A living wage for a married priest, including additional health care costs for the family, would pose a significant financial burden to our parishes. While some of our parishes could easily afford the additional cost of employing a married priest, many parishes do not have the spare income to support such an additional expense. Some people might suggest the idea of having one salary for the celibate priests and another for the married priests. However, this would be illegal discrimination. Thus, all priests would have to be paid the current wage or a higher wage consistent with a realistic living wage for a family. The effect would be either the great discouragement of actually having married priests or the closure of many of our smaller parishes. Hardly a win-win proposition.

A married priesthood would make some parishes more or less desirable for the married priest. A married man is much more likely to want an assignment at Our Lady of Sorrows or St Mark’s than to Our Lady of Fatima, St Barnabas, Blessed Sacrament, or our many rural parishes. Schools, safety, access to healthcare, and other factors would be a huge influence to a married priest. It is already a complicated process placing priests in parishes. Departing from celibacy would make it much worse.

—Fr Booth